The Interplay Between Your Reason and Emotions

It can sometimes be useful to think of yourself as consisting of multiple systems. You have an emotional system that constantly processes your sensory input and thoughts, and produces emotions like fear, anger, happiness and contempt based on this input. You also have a reasoning system, which is what you use when you are reasoning, planning, analyzing and consciously predicting. But the operations of these two systems are not independent. In fact, they each have the power to alter the operations of the other, and frequently do so.

It turns out that the answers produced by our reasoning system are highly impacted by our emotional state. When anxious, the probability we assign to bad events occurring increases compared to when we are excited. When depressed we tend to plan as though activities are unlikely to bring us pleasure, even ones that do bring us pleasure reliably (so we avoid friends, predict that we won’t enjoy our favorite activities, lie in bed without trying to entertain ourselves, etc.) When anxious we tend to plan for the future in a risk averse way, whereas when angry we tend to be risk seeking and often act without planning. And when we feel vulnerable we tend to construct theories about cause and effect relationships (both real and imagined) more readily and based on less data than we do when we feel safe.

Since the conclusions produced by our reasoning system are altered by our emotional state, if our goal is to get the right answers reliably while reasoning it makes sense to take into account how our current emotions are likely to alter our conclusions. To be safe, it is wise to save important reasoning for times when you are emotionally neutral. Don’t compose that email to your boss while you are still angry at him, don’t do financial planning when you are anxious, and avoid drawing conclusions about conspiracy theories when you are already feeling vulnerable.

On the flip side, our reasoning system is capable of altering our emotional state. Techniques to achieve this are discussed a great deal in the Cognitive Therapy literature. Founders of this field hit upon a remarkable finding: when you get people who are experiencing strong emotions (like anxiety or depression) to write down the thoughts running through their heads, you find that many of their thoughts are unreasonable, distorted or irrational. That is, rather than being based in sound reasoning, their negative emotions are at least in part produced and maintained by irrational, exaggerated and self-destructive thinking. So, it was theorized, correcting some of these distorted thoughts using rational thinking might lead to an improvement in the devastating emotions that people experience. And this is, in fact, precisely what happens.

When seeing a cognitive therapist, patients are taught to make Thought Records. That is, when they are experiencing unhelpful and painful emotions they take a few minutes to write down what situation just occurred and the thoughts that they are having. They then may search these thoughts for common cognitive distortions, consider the evidence for and against their thoughts, come up with “rational responses” (true statements that dispute their negative thinking), or write more balanced and realistic thoughts to replace the ones that they had. The result of this process is that the level of emotion is often reduced, and over the long-term, incorrect and unreasonable beliefs that lead to negative emotions can be altered.

If you need to get correct answers to factual questions, don’t reason while emotional. If you must reason while emotional, consider how your emotion is likely to influence your conclusions. And if you frequently suffer from unhelpful or painful emotions, consider learning about Cognitive Therapy techniques which can help you feel better and correct distortions in your thinking that may be magnifying your harmful emotions.


Influences: David Burns, Paul Ekman

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